Spiritual travel is one of the fastest growing niche travel markets these days. From single faith seekers to groups of middle aged women people are flocking spiritual destinations and routes, travelling in every possible mode of transport. Recognising that meditation, prayer and contemplation are spiritual practices intended to develop an individual's inner life, you could make your own pilgrimage to some of the world's greatest spiritual sites, listed below:
1. Source of the Ganges in India: The Himalayas are considered to be the most majestic and inspiring mountains. The birthplace of meditation and yoga, they are resplendent in natural beauty, rich with mystic folklore and history and oozing with spirituality. The river Ganges tops the list of spiritual getaways. Considered the holy of holies by the Hindus, the mighty Ganges rises in the western Himalayas of Uttarakhand, and flows through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. An estimated 60,000 people go to the Varanasi ghats and take a dip in the holy water as they consider its waters to be both pure and purifying. The most sacred river of the Hindus, it is worshipped as goddess Ganga and most pilgrims make a pilgrimage visit to its sources near Gangotri too, which happens to be one of the four sites in India's Char Dham pilgrimage.
2. Mt. Kailash in Tibet: Rising at 22,028 feet, Mt Kailash is one of the highest and most rugged parts of the Himalayas. Appearing to be made of black rock, this mountain is considered sacred and holy by not just Hindus but Jains, Bonpos and Buddhists also. Near Mt Kailash are two scared rivers - Lake Manasarowar and Lake Rakshastal. It is believed that circumambulating Mt Kailash on foot is a holy ritual that will bring good fortune. Every year, thousands make a pilgrimage to Kailash walking around the mountain (clockwise for Buddhists, counter-clockwise for Bon devotees) which normally takes about 3 days. Hindus believe this peak to be the home of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, and hence they worship Mt Kailash. According to the Bonpos, the sacred mountain is where the founder of the Bon religion landed when he descended from the sky. Tibetan Buddhists believe Kang Rinpoche, which means Precious Snow Mountain, is a natural mandala/circle representing the Buddhist cosmology on earth and the Jains believe this is the place where their religion's founder was spiritually awakened.
3. Camino de Santiago in Spain: Also known as The Way of St. James, this is one of the great Christian pilgrimages, also listed on the UNESCO World Heritage register. The Camino which begins in Roncesvalles, on the French border, covers 783km to the Atlantic coast. Though some people walk the route, others prefer cycling or on horseback. The walking trails originate from all over Europe, some of which start and finish in Spain, and they all converge on Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. Walking the Camino is not difficult - most stages are fairly flat on good paths. Visitors find their own spiritual awakening as they meet pilgrims along the way, attending the many masses and gatherings hosted by churches, monasteries and cathedrals along the Camino. For more than 1,000 years pilgrims have travelled along the many Caminos to Santiago.
4. Medugorje in Bosnia and Hercegovina: The name Međugorje literally means "an area between mountains". The largest pilgrimage site in the world that is not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church has a story behind its popularity. It is believed that on 28 June 1981, the Virgin Mary’s apparition appeared in front of six Croatian boys in Bosnia. Seeing the apparition of a young woman with a child in her arms, they ran away. The following day, in a hope to see the lady, four of them along with two other boys returned to the hill. There was a sudden flash of light, and the lady appeared again, this time without the child. The children kneeled and prayed the rosary, as she prayed with them, except for the Hail Mary. Since then, a place of pilgrimage was born and about 20 million people have been there, walking up the hills where the apparition appeared. The Virgin is said to still appear at Međugorje, bringing messages to the world.
5. Golden Temple in Amritsar, India: Resting against the Indo-Pak border in the city of Amritsar is the famous Golden temple. Also known as Harmandir Sahib which means “temple of God”, this is the holiest shrine of the Sikh faith. The temple is as golden as the name suggests and sits in the middle of the holy Amrit Sarovar pool. Pilgrims bathe in the pool and amble clockwise around its marble edges. Beautifully laid white marble with gold leaf gives a magnificent look to this gurdwara. It is a major pilgrimage destination for Sikhs from all over the world, as well as an increasingly popular tourist attraction. The Guru Granth which is the most holy text of Sikhism, is always present inside the gurdwara. There are four entrances and each of them represents a symbolic welcome to all persons regardless of caste, class, colour or creed. In contrast with many historical sites, the Temple resonates with religious piety and sublime spirituality. Visitors are welcome to immerse themselves in the feeling. Free sanctified meals called langar are served daily. The temple believes in community services and volunteers are never in short supply.
6. 88 Temple Circuit in Japan: This 1200 km loop around the island of Shikoku is considered Japan’s most famous pilgrimage route. According to Buddhist doctrine, the number 88 is equal to the evil human passion and is believed that by completing the 88 Temple Circuit, you can free yourself from every single one of these evils. An estimated 1,00,000 pilgrims travel every year to the temple. Traditionally, pilgrims walked the 1500 km route, even though there is a distance of more than 100km between a few of the temples which takes about six weeks to complete. But nowadays, a tour bus takes you around the 88 Temple Circuit. The circuit is done clockwise. All the temples are said to have been founded by monk and scholar Kobo Daishi.
Shruti Menon, a freelance feature writer based in Delhi, is fond of travelling. She loves meeting new people and during her leisure time, surfs the internet on destinations that are untouched by tourists.